J.J Gross
J.J Gross

Parshat Nitzavim: About those choppers of wood and drawers of water

I. The difference between ״כל איש״ and   ״האנשים״

Between Parshat Nitzvaim and Parshat Vayelekh we have descriptions of three gatherings at which all Israelites were at that moment present, or were to be present in the future.  My focus will be on the first two.

Nitzavim opens with a new covenant between G-d and His People (Deuteronomy 29:9 -10)

אַתֶּ֨ם נִצָּבִ֤ים הַיּוֹם֙ כֻּלְּכֶ֔ם לִפְנֵ֖י יְהֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶ֑ם רָאשֵׁיכֶ֣ם שִׁבְטֵיכֶ֗ם זִקְנֵיכֶם֙ וְשֹׁ֣טְרֵיכֶ֔ם כֹּ֖ל אִ֥ישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃

 טַפְּכֶ֣ם נְשֵׁיכֶ֔ם וְגֵ֣רְךָ֔ אֲשֶׁ֖ר בְּקֶ֣רֶב מַחֲנֶ֑יךָ מֵחֹטֵ֣ב עֵצֶ֔יךָ עַ֖ד שֹׁאֵ֥ב מֵימֶֽיךָ׃

(9) All of you are standing today before the Lord your G-d; your heads, your tribes, your elders and your officers, even all the men (kol ish) of Israel (10) Your little ones, your wives, and the stranger who is in your camp, from the hewer of your wood unto the drawer of your water.

In Vayelekh, Moses describes the Hakhel הקהל gathering which would take place every seven years at which time everyone must gather to hear the Torah read (Deuteronomy 31:!2)

:הַקְהֵ֣ל אֶת־הָעָ֗ם הָֽאֲנָשִׁ֤ים וְהַנָּשִׁים֙ וְהַטַּ֔ף וְגֵֽרְךָ֖ אֲשֶׁ֣ר בִּשְׁעָרֶ֑יךָ לְמַ֨עַן יִשְׁמְע֜וּ וּלְמַ֣עַן יִלְמְד֗וּ וְיָֽרְאוּ֙ אֶת־יְהֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶ֔ם וְשָֽׁמְר֣וּ לַֽעֲשׂ֔וֹת אֶת־כָּל־דִּבְרֵ֖י הַתּוֹרָ֥ה הַזֹּֽאת

Gather the nation, the menfolk (ha-anashim) the womenfolk, and the children, and the stranger in your gates that they may hear and that they may learn etc.

Whereas in Nitzavim Moses itemizes the hierarchy of adult males, in Vayelekh he merely says ‘menfolk’.

Why the difference?  And, more importantly why the hierarchy altogether? After all, with the words “אתם נִצָּבִ֤ים הַיּוֹם֙ כֻּלְּכֶ֔ם we have already established that everyone is standing there. Why the need to describe what “all of you” (כֻּלְּכֶ֔ם) means?

With regard to the Hakhel הקהל  gathering in 31:12, menfolk are a single grouping.  The addition of women, children and strangers is therefore necessary because  האנשים alone might be construed as exempting women, children and strangers.  But in the covenant of Nitzavim the word כֻּלְּכֶ֔ם (all of you) would appear to need no elaborations. After all everyone who was standing there knew full well that he or she was standing there.

I would suggest therefore, that there is a limiting aspect to the breakdown of those who were present in Nitzavim.  Indeed everyone was there. However Moses was not speaking to everyone, at least not to everyone among the adult males.

Note the use of the word  איש – man. The hierarchy of adult males are all classified as איש And the word איש has a very precise meaning as described in Numbers במדבר/ 1:2-4

שְׂאוּ אֶת רֹאשׁ כָּל עֲדַת בְּנֵֽי יִשְׂרָאֵל לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתָם לְבֵית אֲבֹתָם בְּמִסְפַּר שֵׁמוֹת כָּל זָכָר לְגֻלְגְּלֹתָֽם

מִבֶּן עֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה וָמַעְלָה כָּל יֹצֵא צָבָא בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל תִּפְקְדוּ אֹתָם לְצִבְאֹתָם אַתָּה וְאַֽהֲרֹֽן

וְאִתְּכֶם יִֽהְיוּ אִישׁ אִישׁ לַמַּטֶּה אִישׁ רֹאשׁ לְבֵית אֲבֹתָיו הֽוּא

(2) ‘Take ye the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel, by their families, by their fathers’ houses, according to the number of names, every male, by their polls;

(3) From 20-years-old and upward, all that are able to go out to the army: you shall count them by their hosts, you and Aaron.

(4) And with you there shall be a man (איש איש) of every tribe, every one head of his fathers’ house.

Indeed Parshat Bamidbar, the opening parsha of Numbers declares that only those males who are 20 or older and who serve (or have served) in the military are to be counted.   It is only these males who are called איש (man). Anyone else is not called איש and is simply not counted.

Which brings us back to the covenant (ברית) of Nitzavim.  Moses lists the hierarchy of איש because he is deliberately ignoring those who (despite being males over 20) could not be legitimately called איש.  Which is why in verse 10 he then addresses children, and women and strangers – even those with the lowliest vocations – because these people were not required to serve in the army and hence did not deserve to be excluded from Moses’ attention.

In other words, Moses is deliberately excluding all males who willfully abstain from serving in the military. They simply do not exist.

So the question is; what is it about military service that makes it the sole criteria for determining whether a man is counted? Why are draft dodgers, pacifists, kollel members, or anyone else who manages to evade conscription  not counted?  What exactly is the difference between those who bear arms for their people and those who do not?

I would like to suggest that there is a fundamental difference between soldiering and any other pursuit.

In civilian life, whether one is a doctor or lawyer, a business man or architect, a plumber or yeshiva student, he is essentially working only for himself.  True, his effort may have some collateral benefit for others – such as employees, or patients or clients.   Yet the primary motive for engaging in whatever pursuit it is, is a selfish one.

By contrast it is only the soldier who knows what it means to do something that benefits the entire society. Indeed, an army is the one place where it is NOT “every man for himself”.  The interdependency of soldiers is the very key to victory on the battlefield.  And the sacrifice a soldier makes is on behalf of the entire society.

Hence it is only the citizen-soldier who deserves to be counted and acknowledged among adult males. And Moses, through his words in Nitzavim makes this abundantly clear.

II. Those not so ordinary wood choppers and drawers of water

מֵחֹטֵ֣ב עֵצֶ֔יךָ עַ֖ד שֹׁאֵ֥ב מֵימֶֽיךָ “…from the chopper of your wood to the drawer of your water”. ֿ(Deuteronomy 23:10)

After listing every type of person among the Israelites, including children, women and the strangers in the camp, Moses concludes by saying (everyone) “from the chopper of your wood to the drawer of your water”. Implicit in these words is ‘and everyone in between’.

Now this is hardly a very sweeping or impressive range. After all, both woodchoppers and water drawers rank at the very bottom of the social order. Would it not make more sense, for example, to say. e.g. “from rabbinic sages to investment bankers”?

The commentaries suggest that these lower orders of human referred to the Gibonites who inveigled themselves into the Israelite camps and were assigned menial tasks.   But this doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Had this been Moses’ intent he would have said “including wood choppers and water drawers” and not “from the chopper of your wood to the drawer of your water” – obvious bookends meant to enclose a comprehensive range of types and callings.

Also interesting is the use of “your” as in the chopper of your wood. Why not merely say from “choppers of wood to drawers of water”? Why the need for the extra “your”?

I would like to suggest a possible explanation. The establishment of a new community, a new society and especially a new country requires certain preliminary efforts, specifically the designation of two critical pillars to social viability. There must first be hewers of wood, i.e. builders, and simultaneously, drawers of water, i.e. firefighters.

The first pillar includes all those who are involved in the process of building the physical plant – the homes, the roads, the houses of worship, the hospitals and other physical infrastructure needed for a viable community. These all fall under the umbrella “hewers of wood” the primary material of construction.

The second, and equally important pillar includes all those whose job it is to put out fires. And this goes beyond actual firefighters who literally extinguish flames, to include physicians who extinguish illness,to lawyers who on rare occasion actually do good by mitigating social conflagrations, to plumbers and others whose job it is to prevent or thwart catastrophe.

It is only after these two pillars are in place that the rest of us can go about our business, as artists, writers, jewelers, tailors, manufacturers, farmers, retailers etc.

For without our woodchoppers and water drawers – our builders and those who protect what we build – there is no possibility for the rest of us to go about our business and daily routines.

As to why Moses uses the least common denominator among these two primary pillars, and why he uses the term “your”, perhaps this is in order to instill a measure of humility among those who build and protect our communities; that ultimately, when it comes down to it, a real estate tycoon is still only a chopper of wood, and a physician is still only a drawer of water whose job it is to serve society and not the other way around. Hence they are “your” woodchoppers and “your” water drawers, mere servants of society and servants of The A-mighty.   They belong to the people, the people do not belong to them.

About the Author
J.J Gross is a veteran creative director and copywriter, who made aliyah in 2007 from New York. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a lifelong student of Bible and Talmud. He is also the son of Holocaust survivors from Hungary and Slovakia.
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